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|Posted May 5, 2007|
In French Bid, Immigrant's Son Battles Reputation as Anti-Immigrant
Ed Alcock for The New York Times
|Taymir Bougou-Pouaty, an African immigrant plans to vote for Nicholas Sarkozy on Sunday. "There are people that want a little order," he said.|
By GRAIG S. SMITH
By CRAIG S. SMITH Published: May 5, 2007 PARIS, May 4 The possible next president of France is the son of an immigrant with a very un-French name who has done as much, if not more, than any other French official to improve the status of minorities.
He knows the pain of being an outsider and even advocates American-style affirmative action, heresy for many people in officially colorblind, egalitarian France.
Yet the one place that the leading candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, has dared not go in the days before the election on Sunday are the volatile working-class neighborhoods of Frances second-generation immigrants, where he is largely reviled.
His opponent, Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party, has played on fears that if Mr. Sarkozy is elected, this countrys minority youths may take to the streets as they did in 2005, setting cars and buildings aflame.
On Friday she said that if he is elected, democracy will be threatened, The Associated Press reported. She said she felt a responsibility to raise the alert about the risks of this candidacy and the violence and brutality that will be set off in the country.
The integration of alienated, second-generation immigrant youths into mainstream French society is one of the thorniest problems facing French politics today, and Mr. Sarkozy, as interior minister, tackled the problem head-on with a directness more typical of an American politician than a French one.
But his Giuliani-inspired zero-tolerance anticrime campaign, his frank, sometimes imprudent talk (tailored to attract far-right voters during an earlier stage of his campaign) and his combative style have turned him into an enemy for many young minorities. Fear that a President Sarkozy would bring five years of heightened tension and violence is an emotion operating at the core of the presidential campaign.
Theres never been a presidential election in France in which the leading candidate causes so much fear, said Kamel Chibli, who grew up in public housing projects outside Toulouse and now acts as a spokesman on minority affairs for Ms. Royal. The future of the country is at stake.
Certainly, the hoots and jeers that Mr. Sarkozys name brings amid the crowded high-rise apartment blocks in the Paris suburbs suggest that a Sarkozy presidency would face resistance, if not unrest. Even Mr. Sarkozys closest supporters concede that there is likely to be some car burning if he wins the election.
But those supporters argue that, given time, his anticrime campaign and promise of training and jobs for unemployed youths would eventually turn the tense suburbs from increasingly stagnant ghettos into peaceful pools of hope.
If the only reason to vote for Ségo is fear of trouble in the suburbs, then democracy is in trouble, said Yves Jégo, the mayor of one immigrant-heavy northern suburb and a staunch Sarkozy supporter. Ségo is Ms. Royals nickname.
Mr. Sarkozy himself has struggled as an outsider, describing himself as a little Frenchman of mixed blood who rose to the top of French politics without going through the normal channels of the elite École Nationale dAdministration as Ms. Royal did.
His record includes a number of efforts to improve the status of members of the countrys minorities, most of whom are Muslim. He encouraged the creation of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, which gave Islam a voice in France. He appointed the first prefect in France who is both foreign-born and Muslim. He has even argued for relaxing rules that restrict government support for building mosques.
And he supports affirmative action, which the Socialists steadfastly oppose. He has promised to find jobs for 250,000 disadvantaged youths before the end of the year.
Ms. Royal promises to reinstate neighborhood police officers and reinstate a state-financed youth employment program, both created by the former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin and discontinued by Mr. Sarkozy. She has vowed that no young person would remain unemployed for more than six months after leaving school.
Even many of Mr. Sarkozys critics concede that his proposals are broader and deeper than those of Ms. Royal.
He is more concrete, more precise than the left, said Mohamed Hamidi, editor in chief of Bondy Blog, a fledgling online magazine focused on Frances working-class suburbs. But he is ready for confrontation.
Many people blame Mr. Sarkozy for the 2005 violence, citing his tough talk and policies during four years as interior minister. Soon after getting the job in 2002, he got rid of beat police officers in troubled neighborhoods, chastising patrolmen in Toulouse for organizing soccer games with local youths. You are not social workers, Mr. Sarkozy said.
His combative style exacerbated the rising tensions, even as it solidified his credentials with the far right, whose support was critical in winning the first round of voting last month.
While visiting La Courneuve, a working-class suburb of Paris, after a shooting in June 2005, he vowed to clean out the suburb with a Kärcher, a brand of high-powered industrial pressure washer.
He inflamed passions further a few months later by telling people in another suburb that he would rid the place of the scum responsible for petty crime.
The harsh language, which he and his supporters still defend, defined him as racist in the eyes of many French blacks and Arabs who were already bristling from the police spot checks that came with the anticrime campaign.
When two youths were accidentally electrocuted while fleeing police officers two days after his scum remark, working-class neighborhoods across the country erupted in an unprecedented wave of urban unrest that was largely a response to Mr. Sarkozy and his tough tactics.
While Mr. Sarkozy has moderated his language and struck a more conciliatory tone in the presidential campaign, he did not help matters by proposing last year that France have a ministry of immigration and national identity to ensure that new citizens adhered to Frances secular values.
To many people in the suburbs, the idea seemed to be a way to suppress cultural differences in favor of a traditional French way of life. S
Since the 2005 violence, Mr. Sarkozy has been unwelcome in the suburbs. He made only one visit to a troubled neighborhood during the campaign, a brief, tightly controlled trip to the suburb of Meaux, where he bore the heckles and harangues of angry citizens in a closed meeting with more than 300 police officers posted outside.
But Mr. Sarkozys supporters say that the law-and-order drive and social programs, in time, would have a deeper impact on the stagnation in the suburbs, for which they blame 20 years of Socialist Party policies.
You have to be firm with people who interfere with other peoples lives, Taymir Boungou-Pouaty said as he watched a handful of police officers intervene to stop a fight outside La Courneuves notorious city of 4,000 housing projects, so named because it includes about 4,000 apartments. You cant coddle them.
Mr. Boungou-Pouaty, an immigrant from Congo, was one of the handful to benefit from Mr. Sarkozys 2005 visit to the suburb. He was hired by a French company as part of Mr. Sarkozys affirmative action plan and is now a volunteer in Mr. Sarkozys campaign.
He said many people in the housing projects supported Mr. Sarkozy, even if they were reluctant to talk about it.
They speak through the ballots, he said, noting that while Ms. Royal won 41.1 percent of the vote in La Courneuve, Mr. Sarkozy received a respectable 22.9 percent, more than the centrist candidate François Bayrou, and better than President Jacques Chirac fared in the 2002 presidential election. There are people that want a little order, a little rigor, Mr. Boungou-Pouaty said.
He is reassured because Mr. Sarkozy himself was born to a refugee, a Hungarian. The name Sarkozy isnt French like Royal or Le Pen, Mr. Boungou-Pouaty said, referring to Ms. Royal and the defeated far-right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen. To have a name like that at the top of France, thats something.
But the accusations of racism have stuck. The soccer star Lilian Thuram says that Mr. Sarkozy told him during the 2005 unrest that its the blacks and Arabs who create problems in the suburbs. Though Mr. Sarkozy says the story is not true, Mr. Thuram has repeated it over and over, becoming a popular voice of the anti-Sarkozy movement.
If Sarkozy wins, Im sure therell be trouble the night of the elections, said Mr. Hamidi, the Bondy Blog editor. With Ségo, things will be calm for five years.
In a way, Mr. Sarkozys confrontational style has already changed the suburbs, where economic stagnation had deepened political apathy. Many minority youths registered to vote in the wake of the 2005 unrest, and abstentions in the suburbs fell by half to about 15 percent in the first round of voting.
Mr. Boungou-Pouaty warns that Mr. Sarkozy would have only one chance to make good on his message.
We will see how he constitutes his government, whether it includes blacks and Arabs, Mr. Boungou-Pouaty said. If they disappoint us, its over.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Saturday, May 5, 2007.
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